Purple Cow (Seth Godin) — Summaries: EP52

This book talks about the importance of making your products remarkable. Remarkable means: “Worth making a remark about”. If you see a field of cows and they are all black or brown, then you suddenly see a purple one: that’s remarkable. You want to stand out in the market place, so people take notice.

Supply and Demand — Advertising vs Attention

Advertising has become so prevalent that it’s everywhere all the time now. 40–50 years ago, you may have only been able to see a few ads a day, but now you are bombarded with thousands per day. It’s almost impossible to capture anyone’s attention in today’s conditions, as a result. There’s too much advertising supply, and not enough consumer attention to go around.

The consumer has learned to automatically “tune-out” all advertising, unless it directly applies to them, or features a product they already want to buy or need. Traditional advertising is way down in effectiveness.

Advertising — The “Funnel”

When you show an ad, it works as a funnel:

  1. First there are people who will see your ad.
  2. Only a fraction of them will want your product.
  3. Then only a fraction of those people will pay attention to your ad.
  4. And finally, only a fraction of those people is actually willing to buy.

An example. Let’s say you are advertising pain relief medicine:

  1. You need to find only those people who need pain relief.
  2. Then, among those people, find the ones who aren’t happy with the current options they have.
  3. And out of those, only a fraction will listen to what you’re saying and believe your proposition.
  4. Out of those, only a fraction will commit to buy.

At each of these steps, you could be looking at an “orders of magnitude” reduction in viewership, making it difficult to reach your true customers.

A history of advertising

If we examine each of the major stages of advertising in society, we can look at them like this:

Before Advertising

Consumers first recommended products directly to each other, through word-of-mouth. If a particular merchant did a good job or offered a great service, people would recommend them, resulting in more people going there.

During Advertising

Advertising was very effective in this period, because the market was not overly saturated. Marketers would be able to throw more and more money at advertising, and see constant results proportional to that budget.

After Advertising

Today, we have largely returned to the word-of-mouth model, where we need someone we trust to refer a working product to us. This is amplified by social networks, in the speed and scale at which word can now spread.


You do need to solve the customer’s problem and satisfy your needs with your product. However, this in itself, is not enough. You also need to greatly stand out from the competition and be “remarkable”. A good example of a distinctive product is the Volkswagen Beetle with its unique visual design and color choices. Looking at the product itself, it stands out from all other cars on the street, which helped it with word-of-mouth marketing as well.

Taking risks now is safer than not taking risks.

If you make a product that looks like all others, without any significant differentiation, your product will be “invisible”. Most companies, however, are afraid of taking risks. An example of a boring product is the Buick — which was always designed in a conservative way. It hasn’t had great sales as a result.

Andrew Weil was studying to be a Doctor at Harvard, where everyone was trying to become the best in their field. Andrew, however, took an alternate approach and focused on combining regular and alternative medicines. This practice was frowned upon by the medical institutions. However, it paid off for Andrew, who was able to help a lot of people through his clinics.

Following the Leader

Some businesses choose to mirror the movements of a market leader — emulating their products, business strategies and marketing. However this will not let you become a leader. Leaders try new ideas all the time, and become remarkable through experimentation. If you are just copying another company, you will always be slow to react, and the market will change underneath you. You will then be left behind, because you don’t have experience in experimentation, creation and testing of new ideas.

Record companies are a prime example of an industry that was slow to react to a changing market. They kept producing the same products and packaging, all the while online music stores and streaming services sprawled up around them.

Instead of copying the leader’s moves exactly, introduce different moves that would make you distinguished from the leader. This effectively puts you ahead of them, and not just on the same level.

Targeting a Customer Segment

There are 5 groups of customers: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and the Laggards. The Early/Late Majority is the biggest chunk of the market, but it’s not a good idea to target these groups at the start. You should only go after the Innovators in the beginning, because they are more likely to try new products and will help you create word-of-mouth around them. They pride themselves on being innovators, and this is a powerful motivation for moving your early product forward.

If you were selling digital cameras at the time that everyone was still using film cameras, the Innovators would be Tech Enthusiasts and Professional Photographers. Your digital camera can really make a difference in their life, and they would care about its benefits. Those people also have authority and could convince others to use your new product.

The two questions to ask yourself when it comes to generating word-of-mouth promotion are:

  1. How easy is it for people to recommend my product to others?
  2. Does my target group regularly talk about the products that they like and use?

Marketing must be at the core of the product

Marketing should not be an after-thought, and only something that’s done after a product is produced. It should be built into the product from the beginning. It includes design, pricing, production and sales — and considers marketing tactics and strategies that cover exactly how people will talk about your product. A competitive advantage (an Edge) should be at the heart of all these factors.

Finding an Edge

You can come up with a list of varying product features and qualities, and compare each of them against your competition on multiple aspects: price, image, promotion, etc. The product should be summarizable with a simple slogan, because your product has marketing built into it.

The Leaning Tower of Piza vs the Pantheon

Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Piza gets 100 times more tourists visiting it than Rome’s Pantheon? Both are historically significant, beautiful and impressive structures, however, the leaning tower of Piza has a slogan: “It’s a leaning tower”.

Your customers should act as free marketers for you

Another example of a powerful slogan and differentiator is Tiffany’s blue box that comes with all of their jewellery products. It frames the product in an image of quality, and class which perpetuates the brand and people’s referrals. Tiffany’s customers spread the word about the special item they received as a gift, and this marketing is free.

Targeting your ideal customers

It’s important to show your ads to exactly the customers who are most likely to listen to your message and want to buy your product. Google ads is a good tool for this, because it allows you to target specifically to queries that describe a specific problem someone is having. This “intentioned search query” increases the likelihood of your ads working, and also allows you to test multiple assumptions quickly.

Zara is a clothing brand that has been known to completely change the selection of clothes in their stores once a month, and measure how the changes perform. When doing this change strategy, it’s important to measure not only the cost of performing the change itself, but also the cost of measuring the results effectively.

The “Embarrassment” of the Purple Cow

Most people will be afraid to create a purple cow. They’re scared of the criticism of others and about looking silly. However, the opposite is true, and you should be afraid of blending in and playing by the rules. A remarkable product will always attract criticism, and this is unavoidable. Examples are: the Hummer H2, the Mini Cooper, and the Cadillac CTS. The people who buy them love them, but the people who dislike them will be as mean as they can be, based on the stories they tell themselves.

Ridicule is free marketing as well

Many companies are afraid of being bold because they’re afraid of being made fun of and “tarnishing their brand”. If someone simply dislikes your product, their dislike will also serve as free marketing for it. There are however, healthy boundaries to being outrageous or offensive. Avoid creating a scandal or seriously offending a group of people.

Infrastructure Changes for Companies

Many companies are afraid of drastically changing their products to become remarkable, because it would introduce significant costs and changes to their manufacturing and business structure. Such was the case for Best Buy, when they decided to focus on selling only the products that customers wanted to buy, instead of carrying standard products. Large logistical changes resulted for BestBuy when they made this product shift.


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Alexei: Entrepreneur, Programmer

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